Monthly Archives: August 2015

Only the Lonely

Earlier this summer, Dr. Joe did several Home Office That Works! presentations to groups of freelancers and other budding home workers, and one question came up several times: how do you avoid getting lonely? After all, when we work in an office, we are surrounded by people and even if we wouldn’t necessarily want to spend our non-working lives with any of them, they do fulfill the essential human need for companionship. When you work from home, you obviously lack that human factor. Even if you have a significant other and/or a family, they may not be home during the day. This is great for getting work done, but bad for not feeling like you are in solitary confinement.

Of course, you may actually like being alone. Some people do, and have no problem being by themselves for long periods of time. Some of us feel like we’re not lonely enough!

But for those who go a little batty when left on their own, there are ways of combatting the sense of isolation that a home office can engender. One is to avail yourself of other forms of communication. You’re never alone as long as Skype is on!

More importantly, though, it can also be helpful—and therapeutic—to get out of the home office for at least an hour during the day. After all, working from home doesn’t mean you are shackled to your own desk. It shouldn’t be thought of as a prison of one’s own construction. For example, Richard goes out to the gym for an hour or so a day and socializes with friends there, or meets up with people after work. He is friendly with the manager of The UPS Store where he gets his mail, and a basic business errand offers time for pleasant chatting. Likewise, others he encounters when doing basic business or domestic chores are good substitutes for coworkers. Dr. Joe takes karate and fulfills his need for companionship that way.

Networking opportunities such as relevant Chamber of Commerce seminars and mixers, Toastmasters or service organization (like Rotary Club) meetings, or other such vents may be held during the day, and offer both the opportunity for socializing as well as business networking.

It is also possible to work—at least part time—in so-called “hive” environments, spaces set up for home office workers to work in a remote, but more or less social environment. A Google search may turn up one or more near you.

There are many options—online and in the “real world”—for overcoming whatever sense of loneliness you may have while working from home.

Keeping In Touch, Part V: Final Thoughts

For the past couple of weeks, we have been looking at what we call the “connection trinity”: physical mailing address, telephone, and e-mail. Regardless of which option for each of these items you choose, our forest piece of advice as you are setting up your home business and home office is to “stabilize” all your contact info ASAP. That is, set up e-mail addresses, phone numbers, and mailing addresses as soon as you can. After all, you want people (like customers) to be able to contact you! And while you can use your residential info at the outset, keep in mind that you will want to produce collateral and promotional materials like business cards, letterhead, envelopes, and mailing labels as soon as you can. Even if you don’t have a pressing need for letterhead (and fewer and fewer of us do these days), you do need business cards, which should have the correct contact info and should not be “updated” by crossing out an old phone number and writing in the new one by hand.

The Home Office Has a Beer, or…8,500 of Them

To be more specific, the home office is made of beer…bottles. Mongolian architect Li Rongjun built his home office out of 8,500 beer bottles. Let’s hope he didn’t empty them all himself. The office itself is something of an advertisement for his talents as an architect, so we don’t recommend that you try this yourself. But to that point, if it’s relevant, you do want to make sure that your home office décor shows off your own talents. 

Keeping In Touch, Part IV: The Internet

Most homes these days have some kind of broadband Internet connectivity, usually through a phone, cable, or other telecommunications company. If it’s through your cable company, you will likely have been given a cable modem into which you plug the cable coming into the house. For wireless networks, you simply purchase a wireless router. This device connects to your cable modem and then broadcasts the wireless network signal that is picked up by the computers and other WiFi-compatible devices in your home, like iPads, iPhones, etc. If you use Apple computers, the router is called an Airport Base Station and can be purchased from the Apple Store online or offline. (Apple Store personnel are pretty knowledgeable and helpful and can readily answer any specific questions about setting up an Airport network.) If you use a PC that runs some version of Windows, you can buy a wireless router at Best Buy, Staples, Walmart, or just about any other big box retailer. Top brands are Netgear, Linksys, and Cisco. They cost, on average, between $50 and $100.

Cable companies like Time-Warner also offer “business class” broadband service that features faster speed and the ability to add more users. It is, of course, more expensive. For most home businesses, your basic consumer Internet service will suffice, but if your business involves routinely transferring very big files (if you work with video, for example) or you require additional features, you may want to consider upgrading.

It is a sad fact that even today it is not always possible to get broadband Internet service. This is especially the case in rural areas. A freelance graphic designer in a rural part of upstate New York as recently as 2010 still had no option but to rely on dial-up Internet service, which uses ordinary telephone lines to access the Internet. For those who remember the 1990s, this is painfully slow; fifty-six kilobits per second is the top speed at which phone lines can physically transmit, and few services ever came close to that. By way of comparison, broadband Internet transfer speeds are measured in hundreds of megabits per second (1 megabit = 1,000 kilobits)—some even gigabits (1 gigabit = 1,000 megabits).

If you are stuck with dial-up, your dreams of a home office aren’t necessarily dashed. If you get decent cellphone reception and have a high-speed data plan, you may be able to use a tablet computer like an iPad or your smartphone for most of your Internet needs. There are also services like Hightail (formerly YouSendIt) that can be used to transfer large files, allowing you to upload and download them from a central server whenever it is convenient to do so. For example, you may go into town regularly and may be able to access high-speed internet at a coffee shop, restaurant, or public library (which we covered in previous posts).

When you set up email service (and there are a number of ways of doing it) you should have a single generic e-mail address that potential clients can use for general inquiries and communication, such as info@yourbusiness.com. Then, you can have additional e-mail addresses that get piped to different places, like your own personal address, a sales address, a support address, and so forth, depending on the nature of your business.

If need be, you can always set up a free Gmail address through Google. Gmail addresses are acceptable, and there is little stigma to using them, but an e-mail address that has the “gmail.com” domain will be far less professional than one that has “yourbusiness.com.”

But there is an advantage: Gmail can be set up as your regular e-mail software, but the custom domain can send all of its e-mail to you. There can be great advantages to Gmail, so you may find this to be a good option.

Keeping In Touch: The Connection Trinity, Part III: The Phone

In the last couple of posts, we looked at the pros and cons of the various options for a snail-mail address. In this post, we’ll look at the second basic element essential to all businesses: the telephone.

Although more and more business communication takes place using some sort of Internet application (e-mail, instant messaging, Skype, FaceTime), the telephone is still necessary to be able to communicate with people who may either dislike or not be especially proficient with electronic media.

You have several choices when it comes to telephony.

Landline

The old standby. The phone connects to physical wires. Landlines are generally reliable, even if today’s handsets don’t come anywhere close to matching the superb sound quality of the old Bakelite phones of yesteryear.

  • Advantages: Decent call quality and reliability, and cordless handsets give you the ability to move around the house or even the yard. You can (and should) get a separate landline just for your business so you don’t have other family members intercepting business calls or tying up the line. It is also a good way to manage distractions as you only give your business number to clients, colleagues, or employers, caller ID notwithstanding.
  • Disadvantages: Additional expense if you also have a mobile phone and/or a home landline. You bear the responsibility for repairing any home telephone wiring problems. If you do decide to ditch the landline in favor of a cellphone at some point down the road, you’ll have to notify anyone who has your old number, plus you may have to reprint business cards, stationery, etc. However, in many places, you may be able to transfer your landline number to a cellphone.

Cellphone

More and more individuals and businesses are forgoing landlines and relying solely on cellphones, specifically smartphones like iPhones or Google Android phones. If you are a telecommuter who works for a parent company, you may be issued a BlackBerry smartphone, as the BlackBerry long ago found favor among corporate IT departments. Before canceling landline service, though, make sure you get strong, reliable cell reception in or around your home office. Service is getting better and better, and there has been noticeable improvement in just the last five years. But still.

On of our home office mantras is that everything you do should project a professional appearance to clients and colleagues, and although everyone understands the limitations of cellphones, you make a poor impression if your calls drop repeatedly. It also negatively impacts your productivity if even simple calls can take half an hour or more to complete. That all said, relying on a cellphone is a cost-effective option, and if you rely on Internet communication, or even texting, it may be the most appealing option. As with a landline, it might be desirable to get a separate cellphone and cell number for your business.

  • Advantages: Less expensive option if giving up landline(s) as well. Portability; you can work—or at least communicate with others—from anywhere. Smartphones can give you a large variety of the business tools and services you need in one small device.
  • Disadvantages: Cell service can be spotty and unreliable. Call quality ranges from acceptable to deplorable. If you talk/text while driving, you are a menace to others on the road—and, in many places, you are breaking the law.

VoIP

Short for “Voice over Internet Protocol,” which has come to refer to a wide variety of different types of services that connect telephones—or the equivalent of telephones—over the Internet rather than phone lines or cellular networks. Early VoIP providers like Vonage mimicked the legacy telephone model; a phone connected to the network could call to and receive from any other phone. Later providers like Skype used their own closed networks which meant that you could only use Skype with other registered Skype users. Newer iterations of VoIP have begun to treat phone calling like e-mailing, in that one caller can call any other caller anywhere on the Internet. Skype and similar services are the best option if you need to communicate with colleagues or clients overseas, as you avoid international call rates which, especially on cellphones, can be extortionate. You can also purchase (for $10) a SkypeIn/Out number in the area code of your choice, and domestic calls are about 2¢ a minute; overseas calls are little more but are still less than calling on a cellphone. You can call to and receive from any landline or cellphone and since Richard has started using this, the call quality (over WiFi) has been almost universally excellent. Calls don’t drop, he can hear and be heard by others, and doesn’t sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher.  Skype also has an iPhone (and iPad) app that lets you use your cellphone as…a phone. Take a moment to wrap your head around that.

  • Advantages: Inexpensive and generally reliable, although Skype does have some issues. Call quality, like that of cellphones, ranges from pretty good to wretched. Skype now has features for multiperson calls, and you can also show your computer screen to the person you have called. You can also get a phone number with an area code of your choice for a limited fee, called “SkypeIn.”
  • Disadvantages: Lack of portability, the Skype app notwithstanding. Spotty call quality, dropped calls. Additional computer hardware—microphone and headphones or headset—may be required. Depending on type of VoIP service, you may not be able to communicate with everyone, requiring additional phone service. It is getting better. If you are in a WiFi area with an iPhone or Android phone, the Skype app is quite good.

Up next: the Internet.

Keeping In Touch, Part II: The P.O. Box and The UPS Store

In this series of posts, we have been looking at options for receiving business mail, or what should be the mailing address of your business, assuming you don’t want your actual home address to be your business address (which we discussed in the last post).

One good inexpensive option is the post office box. The box is located in the lobby of your local post office, and you don’t have to worry about mail piling up someplace, exposed to the elements if you are away for an extended period of time.

  • Advantages: Convenient for receiving mail, not outrageously expensive. There are different mailbox sizes to choose from, based on how much mail you get—or think you’re going to get.
  • Disadvantages: The Post Office cannot accept UPS, FedEx, or other private carriers’ deliveries, which may defeat the purpose of getting an out-of-home mailing address. You are also limited to getting mail during the Post Office’s business hours.

Another good option, which has at least one leg up on a P.O. box, is The UPS Store. Called Mailboxes Etc. once upon a time, The UPS Store is a mailing and office services franchise, usually located in strip malls. Although owned by UPS, they are run by individual franchisees.

  • Advantages: They can receive any shipper’s deliveries, and they can ship packages out by services other than UPS. They do add a service charge for non-UPS packages. They tend to have longer hours than the Post Office, and during the Christmas shopping and shipping season are even open on Sundays. You can also have access to mail when they are closed, if you have a special key or code to let you in.
  • Disadvantages: If you receive a really large, heavy package, you have to get it home somehow. This is not a problem if you are relatively athletic, but it can be if you have a small car. Also, when you sign up for a mailbox, you sign a waiver that absolves the franchisee of any blame for missing or damaged mail. If there is a change of store ownership and the location is abruptly closed for a long period of time—and you cannot get your mail—the Post Office does not go out of its way to help you.

A potential concern—with both these options, it turns out—is hoping that either the UPS Store retail location or the Post Office branch stays where it is for the length of time you plan to run your business. Franchises go in and out of business all the time, and the Post Office is closing locations around the country. There is no easy way of predicting the longevity of your mail delivery site, but fortunately, change of address and mail forwarding forms are easy and convenient to distribute.

Keeping In Touch, Part I: the Connection Trinity

There are three basic things every business needs to function:

  • a mailing address
  • a phone number
  • an e-mail address

One could make an argument for a website, a Facebook page, or a LinkedIn page, but for the basics of conducting business, these are the Big Three. In the next series of posts, we’ll look at the pros and cons of the options for “keeping in touch.” Let’s start with the mail.

The U.S. Mail—sometimes called snail mail—is a service we all take for granted, even if we do receive less physical mail than in the past. But when setting up a home business/office, considering how mail should be handled is an issue that requires more than just a passing thought. Specifically:

  • Do you really want your business address to be your home address?
  • Do you really want to receive your business mail at home?

There are a few reasons why you may answer “no” to one or both of those questions.

Why would you not want your business address to be your home address? One reason would be that you run the risk of having people drop by unannounced. If you publish your business address on your website or in other promotional materials, clients and salespeople would rightly conclude that it was, well, a business address. Therefore, there would be nothing wrong with stopping by, which may be one of the distractions you were trying to avoid by setting up a home office in the first place. (Bear in mind that the actual chances of this happening are quite slim, but it is a possibility, albeit a remote one.)

Another reason involves the second question: where do you receive your mail? There are certainly advantages to simply receiving all your business mail at your home address. It’s convenient, and it’s free. You don’t have to pay for a mailbox anywhere, and you don’t have to leave your premises to get your mail, the latter an important consideration when there is bad weather.

One disadvantage to receiving business mail at home is that if you live alone and travel with any frequency, or you and the whole family go away on vacation for any length of time, you run the risk of mail piling up. You can have the Post Office hold your mail—but you can’t have UPS, FedEx, and other private carriers hold any packages. And these carriers usually have pretty lax policies regarding residential neighborhoods. Unless instructed otherwise, typically by the shipper, they will just leave packages on the front steps of the house. As a result, they can be stolen or, even worse, give the impression that no one is home, inviting burglary. Packages left outside can also be subject to rain and snow, potentially damaging the contents. You can leave notes on the door telling potential deliverers that you are away. But those notes may be overlooked or ignored; they may also advertise that no one is at home.

As with anything else, you have choices in where to have your mail delivered. We’ll look at each of these in the next series of posts.

Cloudland

You have no doubt by now have heard of “the cloud.” “Storing files in the cloud” simply means that rather than having your files stored on your own computer or on a separate disk or drive that connects to your computer, everything is stored on the Internet. Today, cloud use for computing itself, beyond just storage, is increasing significantly.

If you check your e-mail from your phone, get directions using a GPS device, or listen to music on Pandora or another music service, you’ve been using cloud computing. Because high-speed Internet connections have become more available and it’s more common to alternate among tablets, smartphones, and desktop computers, moving files back and forth became a problem. If the files are stored in the cloud, there’s a benefit to using the same software on all of those devices, but that’s not always possible because of the amount of on-device storage needed for word processing and other software. So rather than install software on your tablet or smartphone, fast Internet connections can access software running on computer servers in the cloud as if they were your computer. With good connection speeds, it’s hard to tell the difference. Most cloud-based software works within your everyday Internet browser, although sometimes you might need to download a special phone or tablet app that is specially designed to interface with the cloud software.

More and more software companies are creating cloud versions of their software; Microsoft Office 365 (products.office.com) is a cloud version of the Office suite, while Adobe’s Creative Cloud (www.adobe.com/creativecloud.html) takes Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, and the company’s other high-end design tools into the cloud. Intuit now offers QuickBooks cloud accounting (quickbooks.intuit.com/cloud-accounting-software). To use these services, you pay a regular subscription (monthly or yearly) and you get desktop versions of the software (so you can work offline) as well as some quantity of online storage. The desktop applications and corresponding mobile apps can access these files wherever you happen to be. This is also great for collaborating, since you can share files, as well.

Cloud-based software is not favored by everyone, and even we are a little leery of subscribing to software rather than just buying it outright, or using Open Source software. But however you may feel about what is known as “software as a service (SaaS),” the cloud still can offer tremendous benefits just in terms of storage. Cloud storage lets you keep all your files on a third-party system, which is a great boon as the number of devices we may be using increases.

There is a growing number of cloud storage services. A few to investigate are:

  • Amazon Cloud Drive (www.amazon.com/clouddrive)
  • Box.com (www.box.com)
  • Copy.com (www.copy.com)
  • Dropbox (www.dropbox.com)
  • Microsoft OneDrive (onedrive.live.com)
  • Western Digital Personal Cloud (www.wdc.com)

They all have a selection of plans, from very basic free plans that offer relatively low storage capacity (usually around 10 or 15 gigabytes), only one user, and limits on individual file size, to mid-range plans for $10–$20 per month that offer more storage and the ability to add users, to high-end enterprise plans for larger businesses. They also offer the ability to access stored files on a variety of desktop, laptop, and mobile devices. Amazon’s Cloud Drive is free to Amazon Prime members, as well as owners of Kindles, Fires, or other Amazon mobile devices.

Although we have not tried all of these services, Richard uses Dropbox—the basic free edition—to share large files (like book production files) with colleagues. In fact, it has become so simple to just copy a folder of graphics files to Dropbox and e-mail a link to it that he no longer uses Hightail (formerly YouSendIt), which is a third-party cloud service for sending large files to colleagues whose e-mail servers block attachments over a certain size.

All of these services boast high security, but for those of us paranoid about hacks or outages—as well as the fact that we are not always connected to the Internet—it is always a good idea to have copies stored locally and/or on an external hard drive.

It could be argued that the combination of cloud computing and cloud storage is eliminating the need to even have a computer, and just use a tablet or Google Chromebook.

For the common software programs you might use, such as word processing or spreadsheets, there are great benefits to cloud computing. First, you can pay a small monthly fee for the software rather than making a big purchase of software that might be as much as the computer you are buying. Second, the cloud-based software is always up to date. You don’t have to worry about making upgrades or installing program fixes.

If you are concerned about not always having an Internet connection, you should be. For this reason, Microsoft’s Office 365 does allow downloading of full versions of software as part of the subscription, to as many as five devices. This is one reason why we would favor using the Microsoft service rather than something like Google documents. The OneDrive service allows you to share documents with others without having to attach them to e-mails. The Microsoft service requires you to open a Microsoft e-mail account based on their Outlook e-mail product.

We’ve never liked Outlook on our computers as hackers always seemed to be targeting it and if you have a computer crash, you might lose years worth of e-mail. But now, Outlook is a cloud-based product, much like Gmail is, which is a big improvement. While we’re not fans of Outlook and don’t use it as our regular e-mail application, it does provide a convenient way of keeping your business computing life separate from your personal computing life.

If you use cloud services, you will always have free open source software to use as a backup should you not have a connection.